CIRCLE II CIRCLE – Sharpening The Edges
By Carl Begai
Let's face it, CIRCLE II CIRCLE
isn't the runaway success people
were expecting when the band's debut album Watching In Silence surfaced
in 2003. The thinking was - at least from a press point of view - that
frontman/founder Zak Stevens' SAVATAGE pedigree would be the springboard
to a noteworthy must-see headliner career by the time album #2 or #3
hit the shelves. Instead, Circle II Circle has been plagued by numerous
line-up changes, lack of exposure in the press and on the road, and some
truly horrible album cover artwork (which often translates - or not –
into very necessary merchandise sales). Seasons Will Fall marks the
band's sixth album and another overhaul of the personnel roster, and
according to Stevens the future is bright for a change.
"We started talking about what we were going to do with the band
line-up upward of two years ago, just to get everything where we wanted
it to make this record," Stevens reveals. "Mitch (Stewart/bass) and I
have been together for nine years. Our guitarist Bill Hudson has been
with us for a couple years doing tours and stuff, so he was on his way
to being a permanent member of the band. That wasn't much of a change;
adding him needed to happen. We also wanted to go back to the two guitar
line-up, so we added our good friend Christian Wentz, who came on a few
European tours to document stuff. And we needed a full time keyboard
player given the type of music we play. Going out to play live and using
different people all the time wasn't working or us anymore, so we
brought Henning Wanner into the band. We're just one of those bands
where it took a long time to get to where we wanted to be with the
line-up. It was crazy. Getting to the sixth album, we finally have it.
Everybody is very happy."
"We've been playing with this line-up for about eight months now,
the chemistry is all there, and we've got five singers in the band now
which is something we needed badly. You know what kind of stuff we do;
whether we do full Savatage albums or things that have counterpoint we
need to have all these voices. I'm so happy because we finally have this
big choir of a band (laughs)."
Stevens has had to fight every step of the way to gain recognition
for Circle II Circle in spite of the fact he's keeping Savatage alive
through the band's shows... when they can get out and play. The naked
truth, though, is that many fans would be quite happy with the band
doing full Savatage sets instead of focusing on the CIIC material. Some
would say Stevens' importance in the Savatage legacy demands it. With
that history in mind, one would think Stevens is feeling some
frustration after 10 years of pushing Circle II Circle only to have
people still focusing on his glorious past.
"It's gone by kinda fast, actually" Stevens says of those good ol'
days. "When I left Savatage it was a crazy part of my life with young
children, I had to do a lot of things on the side besides music, and
when I look back on that I wonder where the time went. Now I'm in a good
place because the kids are a little older; that makes a big difference.
Dad can travel and do more in the band now. I'm also not married
anymore so... I'm just in a much better place now (laughs). Now I have a
music career and I'm able to put the necessary time into it. Starting
about two years ago I had that time and my focus became a lot tighter.
Now I have the time and dedication to set goals and reach them. It's a
whole different ballgame now. The expectations that we're going to play
Savatage stuff on any given night, it doesn't frustrate me that much. I
know it's part of me, that's where I come from. There's so much more to
do with Circle II Circle."
On a personal level, I gave Circle II Circle
up for dead two albums
ago, when it seemed Stevens
had nothing of worth left to offer
musically. No offence, of course, but there was zero ebb and flow to the
music and very little in the way of dynamics. Seasons Will Fall has
altered that state of mind somewhat; Stevens talks about a renewed focus
and yes, it's there. The album is where the last couple should have
"That's true," agrees Stevens. "You're exactly right. We've done a
few European tours, but that was just to keep the name out there,
really, rather than trying to move forward and make some big explosion.
We wanted to change that whole mindset and this is the beginning of a
new chapter. We're not setting limits on ourselves anymore. There was a
lot we wanted to do with the record, and luckily we didn't get too tied
up with it or go too crazy. It had to be new and different, and maybe
even capture some of the best of the old stuff. I had a lot more time to
work on my parts - lyrics, vocal melodies, arrangements - so I enjoyed
working on this album because of the comfortable environment I was in."
Seasons Will Fall also marks Circle II Circle'
s move from AFM
Records to earMusic, the first label change of their career. Stevens
says it was long overdue and is quite happy to share a roster with the
likes of Kamelot, Chickenfoot
and Gamma Ray.
"We had to make changes in every area including the record label.
The label situation we were in was just not conducive to getting
anything done. They were great when I first came on board for the
Watching In Silence record because the founder, Andreas Allendorfer, was
just a great guy. He was a one-man record company. A few days before
our second album came out (The Middle Of Nowhere - 2005) he was killed
in a car crash, and from there things started to unravel. There was a
corporate merger and things just started to fall apart for us. By the
time our fifth album came out (Consequence Of Power - 2010) things were a
mess. The album was a mess, too (laughs). We had to redo everything and
the label was one component."
"Consequence Of Power, we knew... well, it's bad when you have a
band sitting around saying 'Meh, let's just give them two good songs...'
because you know the label isn't going to do anything with it. It's
frustrating when you know they're just going to throw it on the street
and say 'Okay, who wants some of this?' I probably stuck with them too
long, but I was so busy dealing with other things that I didn't think to
jump ship. We were holding back the good stuff for this situation right
now. We gave earMusic a great record and it's the beginning of a great
relationship. And, it's coming back to Savatage'
s old European label."
Speaking of things coming full circle - no pun intended - there are
moments on Seasons Will Fall that sound like the band was channelling
Savatage musically as well as vocally. Sure, Stevens comes by it
honestly, but it's an ingredient that's been sorely lacking in recent
"There's probably a little bit of that sneaking around. I don't
remember pulling things from that angle. I used to write with Criss
Oliva back in the day, so I've stuck with the same songwriting methods
I've always had. I don't go too much into 'What would Jon (Oliva) do
here? What would Paul (O'Neill) do there?' The influence of the overall
Savatage music definitely sneaks in, and the stuff that I enjoyed
performing, I'm sure it gets in there. No doubt about it."
And for the record, Stevens
is in favour a of a full-fledged
Savatage reunion even though it's unlikely it will ever come to pass.
Jon Oliva - the band's lord and master - has gone on record several
times saying that between TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA,
his own band JON
and Circle II Circle,
the music of Savatage
is very much
alive and well. A reunion simply isn't needed because they haven't
really gone away.
"That's true," Stevens agrees. "I think it's more alive now with the
bands out there doing the material. We've gone as far as playing the
entire Wake Of Magellan album, and we're due to go to the Wacken Metal
Cruise for two shows; one of those shows will be Edge Of Thorns in its
entirety. There's never been as much Savatage music out there. Okay,
it's not the actual band from a real fan's standpoint, which I am, but
maybe I'll get my wish that reunion happens some day. With everyone so
active out there, there's a better chance for it. For now we'll
celebrate Savatage as is."